Justice for the ‘underwear bomber’

October 13, 2011

UMAR FAROUK Abdulmutallab stood up in a federal courtroom Wednesday and admitted for all the world to hear that he tried to take down an American airliner by igniting explosives sewn into his underwear. After railing against the United States and calling “jihad” against the country “among the most virtuous of deeds in Islam,” Mr. Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to all eight counts against him, virtually guaranteeing that he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

This relatively quiet end to his trial contrasts with the controversy that followed soon after the Northwest Airlines flight carrying Mr. Abdulmutallab and some 290 others touched down in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. It once again highlights the invaluable role of the federal courts in bringing terrorism suspects to justice.

Mr. Abdulmutallab, whose despicable mission was disrupted by alert passengers and crew, had managed to pass through security at an Amsterdam airport without the explosives being detected. Once on the ground in the United States, he was questioned for a mere 50 minutes by U.S. law enforcement officials before he was read his Miranda rights and subsequently charged in federal court. The case prompted the FBI to revamp its rules to give agents greater flexibility in questioning terrorism suspects before invoking Miranda rights, and it spurred the introduction of full-body imaging devices in U.S. airports.

The Obama administration claimed that it gathered valuable intelligence during the brief interrogation and that it worried that a prosecution could be compromised if Mr. Abdulmutallab was not read his rights and taken before a judge in a timely fashion. We were among those critical of the administration for rushing into law enforcement mode and not seriously weighing all options, including designation of Mr. Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant. But we part ways with those who — to this day — continue to work to put federal courts off-limits for terrorism prosecutions.

Federal courts have long been a tried-and-true venue in which to prosecute accused terrorists. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has secured some 300 terrorism-related convictions in these courts, according to Justice Department statistics. The courts’ rules are clear, procedures are fair and their legitimacy is unparalleled. The punishment meted out upon conviction has consistently and appropriately been tough. In the Abdulmutallab case, the Miranda warning — and the possible exclusion of statements taken before then — was inconsequential because of the overwhelming physical and eyewitness evidence. Efforts to strip the executive branch of this powerful tool or to force all terrorism suspects to be held in military custody are as myopic as the Obama administration’s failure at the beginning of this case to consider the alternatives.

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